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by Bill Gibron

25 Mar 2008


Dear Weinstein Brothers. We know things aren’t going particularly well for you right now. After severing ties with the notoriously bothersome House of Mouse and striking out on your own, you’ve found nothing but roadblocks in your Neuvo Miramax highway to success. Your recent releases have all underperformed, and now, that 2007 tent pole, the fascinating Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez retrofest Grindhouse is being buried under a bounty of bad press. The entertainment community, desperate to see you fall on your flabby behinds, has come after you like sharks on a wounded whale, and the foreseen flopsweat is ripe with potential failure.  It’s gotten so bad that you’ve even been thinking of taking both movies, expanding their individual running times, and releasing them as separate cinematic experiences.

Guys….guys…guys…calm down. Grab a bottle of Artesian spring water, a couple of prescription sedatives, and rest for a while. The LAST thing you want to do here is split apart this already intriguing return to the drive-in dynamic of three decades ago. Film fans of a certain age and demographic get what you were going for and really appreciate the time, talents, and tenacity you showed in getting it released. This was never going to be an easy sell – for one thing, Tarantino and Rodriguez are Grade-A certified geek meat if ever audiences tasted same. Their projects are propelled from a dork driven place so deep down inside their idiosyncratic ideals that basement dwelling film nerds feel unworthy in their presence. If you thought you were about to make mega-bucks with these oddball directorial dweebs, you must have been smokin’ screener copies of Shakespeare in Love.

Grindhouse was destined to be a tough ticket for numerous, obvious reasons. You’re dealing with horror and other genre elements, facets that most film fans tend to kvetch over, and critics can’t understand or appreciate. Next, you’re dealing with a category of cinema that few comprehend, let alone welcome. Ask someone what they think of exploitation, and you’re likely to get the regurgitated opinion of some overly academic dickweed who doesn’t cotton to any aspect of the raincoat crowd. Add in the uneven tone, the tendency to associate the entire project with the outer fringes of major mainstream motion pictures, and the lack of genuine buzz (thank you so bloody much, 300!), and you’ve got a dead on delivery dud. Even if you gained a 100% “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, audience ennui would be enough to give your business plan agita before the Friday estimates were released.

But this doesn’t mean you give up. You shouldn’t conform to a viewing going public too dumb to fathom what you’re doing. As a matter of fact, the failure of the film has nothing to do with what’s up on screen. Grindhouse remains a witty, inventive, highly satiric, and gross as all get out experience that’s practically overpowering in its artistic energy and invention. Tearing it apart and turning it into a crude competition of sorts (and between Rodriguez and Tarantino, one can almost envision where your cash is landing) will destroy everything your filmmakers fashioned. And let’s not forget the fake trailers. Those who participated in making those marvelous mock ads deserve some respect as well. Yet the question becomes, how do you solve this seemingly impossible problem. How do you make audiences interested (or in some cases, re-interested) in a title already tainted by a group of jaded journalists? The answer, oddly enough, is right in front of you.

Like the fabled producers of old, the men who made exploitation the historical hinge for all post-modern cinema, you can’t take failure as the final response. David F. Friedman, Dan Sonny, Harry Novak and Bob Cresse didn’t make mountains of money – and a ballbusting reputation - by moping around the minute the public rejected their efforts. No, they reinvented these projects, using the standard carnival barker approach of bait and switch to change the perception of their problematic productions. Sure, this SOUNDS like what you want to do, but there is a big difference between cutting your losses and trimming the fat. These men made their all important names out of never failing the public, by understanding what the people prefer, and more importantly, what they’d be willing to pay for. If a standard sexless thriller didn’t work, they’d tack on a scandalous ‘square-up’ reel to increase the erotica. If the horror wasn’t high enough, more blood drenched gore was quickly inserted. Entire films were re-edited, sequences reshoot, and plotlines changed to find the right combination of salable shuck and jerryrigged jive.

So, following this pattern, here’s what you should do. First, pull this daring double feature from the theaters before more self-styled pundits can piss all over it. Take stock in what you have already available in cutting room trimmings and existing tweak time, and get your auteurs involved. Make them part of, not the reason for, this process. Don’t dawdle over money or creative control – the ship is sinking and the rats have already ponied up and abandoned you. Look to the future – say the end of August/beginning of September – and get your accessible forces poised for war. It’s going to be a long and involved process, but in the end, you could be looking at 300 style returns at the end of the day.

In the case of Planet Terror, reinsert the “missing reel” sex scene between Rose McGowen and Freddy Rodriguez, turn the Bone Shack into a combination barbeque pit and badass biker bar, let the chopper riding rejects rumble with some good old fashioned fisticuffs, give us more of the stoic stripper storyline (including lots of shots of nubile naked torsos) and then tell Robert Rodriguez to remove a little of the freak show spectacle. Granted, no one enjoys mindless bloodletting as much as this considered critic, but fountains of grue spouting over and over again can get a tad, well, old. Instead, how about more of those amazing moments when deconstructed corpses are examined in nasty, nauseating detail. In a world awash in CGI chum, physical effects can really help you stand out. Besides, nothing will sell the fright flick facets of this production better than more shots of Fergie’s hollowed out head.

As for your main man QT, tell that diva director to turn down the chatter. The dialogue in Death Proof is amazing, the kind of potent palaver that Tarantino carries Oscar gold for. But in a film that’s a self-described “slasher flick”, what we need is more slice and less nice. Listening to girls gossip and give their unique opinions of sex and self within the context of a killer action thriller is like featuring random shots of kittens during a snuff film. Trim a few minutes of their minutia driven confabs, give Kurt Russell more lines (he is an endlessly fascinating character who we need to know more about) and provide another stellar suspense sequence like the one where the car’s characterization is proven on Rose McGowen’s unsuspecting person. Make it lean and mean and you’d have one amazing movie on your hands.

Finally, find a few more famous filmmakers willing to give you some new and novel trailers – perhaps approach members of the referenced and revered like John Carpenter or Herschell Gordon Lewis. And then tell the MPAA to go to Hell. That’s right, thwart convention. Take a stand for all lovers of cinematic extremes. Position yourselves as the artist’s advocate, and let the marketing challenge chips fall where they may. It’s going to take you a good few months to get the interest level back up again, and to purge the perception of failure from almost all elements of this movie. Again, breaking them in two won’t do that. You’ll just double the disgust, making movie fans, in their mind, choose the lesser of two unexceptional evils. To revamp awareness and create curiosity, you have to reposition everything about your concept. 

And the only way you can do that is via education. Time to teach the public what they obviously do not know – that is, that exploitation rewrote the motion picture roadmap. It created a freshness and openness that most filmmakers never even considered. Better yet, when foreign films couldn’t find a footing on American shores, the Grindhouse gang rescued these movies, exaggerated their simplistic sexual freedoms, and turned the arthouse into the cathouse. Recognize that you’re going to have to do a lot of explaining and hire someone happy to oblige – say Something Weird Video’s Mike Vraney, or Psychotronic’s Michael Weldon - and walk the viewers through a short lesson in the genre’s mesmerizing history. Get the remaining members of the 40 Thieves together for a series of interviews, or better yet, have IFC, Sundance, Encore, or any other cable channel that’s willing to work with you do a series of Grindhouse specials. Showing a certain style of movie once a week won’t cut it. You need constant coverage of the category with input from the people who provided the foundation for your post-millennial homage.

Then, create a documentary mini-series. Get QT and Rodriguez to go coast-to-coast, roadshowing their new versions in a day long grindhouse extravaganza. Let them position their films midway through, and then surround them both with a dawn to dusk collection of classics, cult faves and unknown gems. Toss in a few real trailers, a bunch of those clever, kitshy ads from the era, and make it a magnificently misguided marathon. Turn it into the Lollapalooza of b-movies madness, a real event that will proceed the regular theatrical showing. Of course, this is just the suggestion of someone who loves the original double feature and would hate to see it die from what appears to be a predetermined desire to see you fail. You’ve worked your magic on other minor efforts before. Here’s your chance to show the entire world that you can, and do, mean business. You can’t let audience apathy wear you down. Grindhouse is a good movie. Now it’s time to convince everyone else of that fact.

by Bill Gibron

24 Mar 2008


He has the magic touch. Either that, or Hollywood is so bereft of visionaries that his ideas must be copied – in some cases, literally – in order for motion picture innovation to be captured. Of course, it’s Frank Miller that everyone is talking about – again. The celebrated comic book artist first came to the attention of film fans when his Dark Knight take on Batman was reference over and over again as the inspiration for Tim Burton’s reboot of the famed super hero. Then Robert Rodriguez did the illustrator one better, actually giving him a co-director credit on his all CGI take on the Sin City series. It was that unique post-modern noir, a combination of real live actors and carefully crafted digital backdrops that argued for Miller’s arrival as a major influence in the world of cinema.

And now 300 seals the deal. The Zach Snyder epic, telling the tale of ancient Sparta’s confrontation of overwhelming Persian forces at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. is currently confounding critics, already over $100 million in box office grosses in a little less than ten days. Some are calling the sword and sandal spectacle the dawn of a new age in filmmaking, while others laugh at its ‘all style and no substance’ approach. But with Rodriguez already planning a pair of City sequels and the industry buzzing over Snyder’s boffo returns, one thing is for certain – just like The Matrix did back in 1999, Miller is destined to cast his impact over a decade or more of motion picture output. After all, you know the old Tinsel Town saying. Success doesn’t breed contempt – success breeds competition.

So as producers and suits go scurrying through the Miller catalog, looking for untapped projects to greenlight, and as the copycats prepare their own interpretations of the artist’s over the top style, we here at SE&L have a few suggests for genres that should be given the man’s pen and ink invention. In each case, the motion picture category is either stagnant, or suffering from one of its usual bouts of overdone obviousness. But by splashing a little Miller into the mix – or, by implication, following the same stylized look of his ‘graphic novels’ – an aesthetic rebirth may actually be in order. Let’s start with the most logical creative candidate:

The Horror Film:
Experts will argue that you don’t need enigmatic visuals to sell scares or suspense. Indeed, music, plotting, characterization and careful direction are all one supposedly requires to make an effective thriller. But since those other elements are in short, or seemingly unavailable supply, there’s got to be another way to reconfigure the fright film. Enter macabre ala Miller. Thanks to his exaggerated approach, especially when it comes to blood and guts, and the ability to ramp up violence until it reaches otherworldly proportions, your typical slasher storyline or undead drama would suddenly stand as a demented demonstration of fear. We’ve already seen other movies attempt such a shift. Ronny Yu’s amazing Freddy vs. Jason managed to breath life into the two dying franchises by emphasizing their inherent brutality, filtering it through a Hong Kong action ideal. And for all their goofy Goth cheesiness, the Underworld films have tried to create an alternate universe where vacuous vampires battle Eurotrash werewolves in an ongoing war of wire-fu proportions.

But it is Christophe Ganz’s astonishing Silent Hill that proves, positively, that Miller’s optical opulence can carry the creepy for an entire horror film. Based on the noted videogame series, the French filmmaker (who made a name for himself with the remarkable Brotherhood of the Wolf) applied real world terrors to his supernatural setting, resulting in a startling vision of surreal, sinister despair. Several sequences in particular, as when air raid sirens sound off to warn of the coming “darkness”, grab the viewer by the neck and refuse to let go. Now imagine such a situation augmented by Miller’s attention to depth and detail. Sin City touches on such scary movie elements. It’s clearly there when Mickey Rourke’s Marv confronts Elijah Wood’s serial killing cannibal Kevin. But that was part of an overall crime story, not a focused look at monsters and madmen. As a result, the application of Miller’s technique to something as inherently horrifying as the zombie film, or something like the Hellraiser franchise, would be outstanding (just imagine a collaboration between the artist and Clive Barker on his Tortured Souls series. Ew!).

The Western:
It’s a purely American genre, a cinematic classification that tends to wrap up the entire spectrum of morality and machismo in a few fiery gun battles. And yet the Western is deader than a Dodge City doornail, milked of all its meaning thanks to decades of overproduction and under-appreciation. Certainly, there have been attempts to revive the hoary old horse opera, wrapping it up in metaphysical meaning (Clint Eastwood’s excellent Unforgiven) or post-millennial angst (Nick Cave’s crafty The Proposition). But when it comes to straight ahead dynamics, when one looks to the black hat/white hat narratives that drove the early era of film, there is very little left of the West’s fading sunsets. Instead, we prefer our cowboy conceits retrofitted into other genres – science fiction (Star Wars), crime drama (you name it!). But if Miller was brought in to enliven the oater, to add his idiosyncratic look to all the outlaw elements, something majestic might occur. Imagine the showdowns, gun barrels glistening in the burning midday sun, bullets flying across the horizon in specialized slow motion majesty. It’s enough to get a film fan good and flustered.

The closest we’ve come, and indeed, a great place to start when considering this concept, is Sam Raimi’s pre-Spidey spectacle The Quick and the Dead. Thanks to a hot (commodity speaking) Sharon Stone, fresh off the lingering Basic Instinct hype, the Evil Dead auteur got a chance to work out all his High Noon histrionics with the visual aplomb he was noted for. His camera in constant motion, his shot selection a veritable cornucopia of new and novel angles (including one incredible ‘wounds eye view’ perspective), Raimi reinvigorated the Western by realizing the areas that needed improvement. Unlike previous revamps by maestros such as Sergio Leone, the filmmaker avoided all the psychological ramifications and went right for the gut. The results were a partial reprieve for the format, and a great example of how style can salvage even the most antique artifacts. Miller’s approach is similar – finding the places where spectacle can replace specifics - and using visuals to vault a sequence’s primeval impact. Like a spaghetti western on steroids, a Frank Miller sagebrush saga would be amazing.

The Musical:
Yeah, it may seem like an odd choice, but the one thing that is definitely missing from the post-modern showtune dynamic is vision. Present day filmmakers, unfamiliar with the old school extravaganza of the genre’s past, figure that if they merely fancy things up with bright lights, big stars, and lots of MTV-style edits, audiences will ignore the unreal situation of individuals randomly breaking out into song. But that’s not the real problem with the musical’s current hit or miss fortunes. No, what’s really missing from the mix is pure artistic heft. It’s what makes Busby Berkley’s work within the category, classic and what elevates the MGM offerings from ‘30s through the ‘50s to the status of masterworks. But look at the recent attempts at reviving the artform. Chicago was a misguided mess (forget the Oscar) while Rent and Phantom of the Opera failed to generate much interest. And let’s not even start in on Dreamgirls. If ever a musical missed the opportunity to play with images and era, it was this relatively routine interpretation of the Motown sound.

In fact, the last great big screen musical was also the last one to understand the need for a unique approach and look. While it was set in the ‘50s, and relied on a famous Roger Corman b-movie for its foundation, Frank Oz’s masterful adaptation of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s Little Shop of Horrors created a world wholly its own, one based in the campy kitsch of the drive-in movie melded onto the sensational schlock of the subject matter. The opening number, and unbelievably moving “Downtown”, sets the stage for the rest of the film’s super sized sentiments. In fact, Oz was so effective at selling the love story between Seymour and his sweetheart Audrey that he had to change the original, downbeat ending. With someone like Miller portraying everything, from the conversations to the choreography, we’d witness the rebirth of a genre through the lost art of visual storytelling. Even better, the artist’s inherent knowledge of what works best within a certain imagined moment would help to bring the hidden emotion and narrative undercurrents out of the songs. Lyrics demand performance and perspective to work effectively. Someone with a mind like Miller’s could easily prove how substantial this stylized interpretation can be.

It has to be said that Silent Hill, The Quick and the Dead, and Little Shop of Horrors all represent just the tip of the treatment iceberg when it comes to bringing Frank Miller’s visual acumen to the world of motion pictures. It is clear that what is required, aside from the artist’s input, is a director in sync with his unusual approach, and a studio willing to gamble a little. No one is saying the combination will be perfect – after all, there are those who look to Sin City and 300 and scoff at the idea of Miller’s brand of sketchpad simplicity. Still, for several genres that are sitting somewhere between outright death and cinematic life support, the unbelievable imagination of this arcane comic book mind could be the aesthetic salvage they so desperately deserve. If it worked for the pathetic peplum of the ‘50s and ‘60s, how can it not succeed elsewhere.

by Bill Gibron

23 Mar 2008


It’s not the most visualized holiday in the motion picture canon. Perhaps it has something to do with the bifurcated nature of the celebration. On the one hand, you’ve got the solemn grace of the Christian conceit, a moving proclamation of faith and forgiveness as best illustrated by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Then, for some perfectly pagan reason, this honorarium for the dead turned into a brightly colored pastel puke fest, as baskets laden with all manner of glucose grotesqueries became the annual endowment to dentists and dieticians everywhere. Even worse, the King of Kings was cast aside for some oversized animal with a tendency toward rapid preproduction and raisin pellet feces. Trying to explain this all to an impressionable youth has got to be one of the greatest challenges in all of parenting. No wonder they saddle their bratlings with all kinds of caffeine and caramels instead.

Hollywood’s been no help. They’ve treated Easter like a leper in the motion picture punchbowl, sticking with either the saintly (The Robe) or the silly (Easter Parade) to illustrate their interest. Of course, kids catch the brunt of it, with all manner of egg and eye candy creations used to keep their attention off the obvious death and dying subtext. Between standard animated offal (It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown) and the unusual ersatz religious revamps (the Veggies Tales take on Dickens called An Easter Carol) it’s no wonder children choke down sweets. But here’s a way of avoiding all this conceptual contradiction. As part of our cinematic service to the planet’s populace, SE&L suggests tossing out the typical and trying a few new entertainment entries this holiday. While they probably won’t fill you with much spring spirit, they will definitely make the time period more tolerable. Divided into the recognizable symbols of the season, let’s begin with:

Rabbits – Night of the Lepus (1972)

So you think all bunnies are cute as a button and snuggly as freshly dried cotton fluff? Well, the gigantic clod hoppers at the center of the surreal creature feature hope to cure you of your one note view of the long eared brotherhood. In one of those typical “science gone screwy” concepts, standard desert pests are given an injection of hump-hindering genetic material to keep them from…well, you get the idea. Anyway, as kind of an infertility payback, the bunnies go ballistic, growing to over 50 feet in size and packing an equal quantity of ludicrousness. Traipsing in between all this Hellspawn hasenpfeffer are noted has-been movie icons Stuart Witman, Janet Leigh, DeForest Kelly and Rory Calhoun, each one testing their acting mantle in respond to good luck charms the size of an SUV. Even Mr. McGregor would have a hard time keeping these elephantine entities out of his precious cabbage patch.

Runner-Up: Evil Anthony conjures up a horrifying rabbit of Hate in Joe Dante’s entry from Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Eggs – Aliens (1986)

As a symbol of fertility and the creation of life, the familiar oblong shape we associate with this time of year can actually hold a deep dark evil. Take the final sequence in James Cameron’s brilliant follow-up to Ridley Scott’s haunted house in space epic. Our heroine, reluctant warrior Ellen Ripley, must take on the monstrous Alien queen to save her Newt, the orphaned child she’s come to care for. Walking directly into the creature’s incredible brooder, the character is confronted by hundreds of face-hugger filled pods. Ripley’s solution? Blast the bejesus out of them with a flamethrower and grenade launcher. Naturally, our birthing beastie gets good and pissed. High octane action ensues. If your own lasting memory of Easter Egging is the slight scent of vinegar and the reluctant discovery, six month later, of the particularly rotten remnants of same, then this battle between the species for the fate of the cosmos will provide a welcome alternative.

Runner-Up: Chad Everett takes on an underwater mutant hatched from a prehistoric omelet in The Intruder Within.

Sweets: The Ice Cream Man (1995)

What do you do when you’re a well meaning maniac, freshly released from the local loony bin and looking to make little children happy with your heartfelt, wholesome intentions? Why, if you’re the stiflingly psychotic Gregory, played with proto-punk brilliance by that human goofball Clint Howard, you don a Good Humor uniform and dish up the frozen treats. Oh, and if you run out of tri-colored Rocket pops – or mood altering medication – you can always add a few corpses to your creamery. Thus we have the perfect antidote for all the sugar-addled pre-adolescents who view the Easter extravaganza as part of a bi-annual excuse to push their internal diabetic tolerances to their very limits. One visit from this frozen custard creep and you’ll be rotting in the ground, instead of your tooth enamel. Besides, nothing can beat Ron’s resplendent little brother as a gap-toothed terror with a 31 flavors jones.

Runner Up: The sickly sweet killer cream at the center of Larry Cohen’s satiric The Stuff.

The Passion:  Dead Alive (1992)

If Mel Gibson’s mega-hit from two years ago taught us anything about the trial and persecution of Jesus Christ, it’s that the Romans really dug their gore. Their skin shredding lashing of the Lord God and Savior was as brutal as it was bloody. If you’re looking for a similar amount of mindless flesh tearing to remind you of the deliverer’s time under the lash, then cast your eyes upon this pre-LOTR classic from Oscar winning wunderkind Peter Jackson. Applying his love of unbridled bloodletting to a surreal story involving a whipped Mama’s boy, the gypsy girl he falls for, and the infected bite of a Samarian rat monkey, it’s not long before the grue goes gonzo and our hero is surrounded by all manner of reanimated zombies. Eventually, claret literally covers every inch of the set. Equally hilarious in its darkly comic creativity, you’ll get a mountain of meaningful violence out of this brilliant bit of bile.

Runner Up: The Japanese argue for the title of most depraved fright fans around thanks to the callous corpse grinding of the Guinea Pig series.

The Resurrection: Deathdream (1974)

In case the brain dulling chocolate rush you’re experiencing has given you a kind of spontaneous amnesia, the main reason most religious types sanctify this time of the year can be summed up in a single phrase – “after three days, he rose from the dead.” Of course, for even the most avid believer, coming back from the grave sounds suspiciously scary. So how about a movie that plays on these allegorical elements to significantly amplify the angst. A masterpiece of uneasy dread, the late Bob Clark’s Dead of Night (known by most under the title Deathdream) uses the old ‘monkey’s paw’ myth to tell the story of a fallen Vietnam soldier “returning” home to his family. In a clear case of being extremely careful what you wish for, our reanimated vet starts exhibiting behavior that would be unacceptable, even in the middle of a murderous war. And all his parents can do is pray – pray that he doesn’t target them for his evil vampiric desires.

Runner Up: The black zombie “redeemer” leading his fellow ghouls out of bondage in George Romero’s Land of the Dead.

The Redemption: The Omega Man (1971)

Ask any Christian you happen to see, and they will tell you that the reason Easter is important is that it signifies Jesus’ sacrifice for all of mankind. In essence, he died on the cross so that the entire world could live. Counteracting such a selfless stance may seem impossible – unless, of course, you’re the fabulous Chuck Heston. First, you warned the world about a certain meat by-product based snack in Soylent Green, and then you challenged mean-spirited mutants in a blitzed out LA as The Omega Man. Either one of these arch epics would satisfy your annual altruistic needs, but the best Messianic complex bet remains Omega Man. Loosely based on Richard Matheson’s masterful I Am Legend, our hopeful hero spends his days driving around an abandoned metropolis. At night, he battles albino throwbacks who want him to die for their new world order. Kind of sums the whole Easter ideal up in a nice little nutshell, doesn’t it?

Runner Up: An international team of scientists, military men, and hack actors all try to save the planet from a Virus that threatens to turn everything into one big Japanese disaster movie.

And there you have it – six films guaranteed to get that nasty taste of bargain basement discount department store pseudo-milk chocolate bunny out of your mouth once and for all. No matter your denomination, or beleaguered belief system, everyone could use a break from tried and true tradition. So give the MGM musicals a rest, and try not to subject yourself to another helping of James Caviezel’s snuff film style scourging at the hands of some psycho-Italianos. Nothing beats the boredom of another mindless spring fling better than something that smotes it right in the repetitive ribcage. With this sly sextet of offerings, it may be a halfway Happy Easter after all.

 

by Bill Gibron

23 Mar 2008


Unlike most cinematic genres, the Hong Kong crime film is a fluid, flexible category. It can easily embrace horror, comedy, drama, and even the occasional excursion into science fiction. The main reason for this is that the plot usually centers most of its purpose in a good vs. evil, black hat/white hat dynamic. Even better, such a storyline typically allows its heroes and villains to be multifaceted and purposefully ambiguous. One of the best examples of the dimensional dynamic is Johnny To’s P.T.U.: Police Tactical Unit. It takes a simple tale of one cop’s search for his missing gun and turns its overnight vignettes into a meditation on loyalty, duty, purpose, and personal regret.

When overweight Sgt. Lo gets into a scuffle with the gang of local hoodlum Ponytail, he comes out of the attack badly beaten and missing his gun. Among Hong Kong police, such an error is unconscionable. Hoping to save face, he gets his friend in the PTU, Sgt. Ho, to cover for him. The two agree - if they can’t find the weapon by morning, they will both report it to CID/Internal Affairs. Of course, this doesn’t keep steely eyed agent Inspector Leigh Cheung from following up on the case. Lo, who knows both crime bosses in the area, decides to play both against each other to find his missing piece. But they also want revenge for a recent assassination and may be setting up the policeman to take the fall.

Dark, noirish, and loaded with late night atmosphere, PTU: Police Tactical Unit (new to DVD from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Company’s Dragon Dynasty label) is an intriguing take on the standard cops and robbers routine. It proves that Johnny To - often referred to as the Woody Allen of Hong Kong - is a master of composition and the camera, taking risks while following standard filmic formulas. At its very core, this is a story about policemen protecting and playing off each other, the responsibility they owe to the public matched by their own internal code of conduct. It deals directly with human foibles and departmental frictions. It begins slowly, shuffling its cards meticulously before playing its flashy final hand, and after it’s all over, we realize there’s much more here than meets the eye.

For the vast majority of the film’s running time, we are involved in a three way struggle between street smart flatfoots, by-the-book procedural lawmen, and glorified gangster bravado. Director To balances all of these elements into a slowly synchronized dance, adding bits and pieces along the way to add depth to what could be a typical bit of law and order. Because Lo is somewhat loyal to both sides of the situation, because Ho understands this beat cop’s need, because Leigh Cheung is seen as bureaucracy incarnate, the infighting between them is far more intriguing than any tired Triad mechanics. While a sequence inside one boss’s den, complete with caged criminals being systematical brutalized, gives us the standard shock value of the genre, To takes away from such sensationalizing by keeping the clockwork plot percolating. 

All of which makes the way this film was created all the more intriguing. As part of the bonus features offered on the DVD, we learn that P.T.U. was made over three years. That’s right, three YEARS. Shooting almost exclusively at night, and when cast and crew could take the time away from other projects, there’s an intimacy born out of necessity here. Commentator Bey Logan, a stalwart of the Dragon Dynasty series, suggests that To was able to take this approach because of his solid reputation. While other filmmakers have to fumble for available production staff, or feed the mainstream needs of the industry, this director can call upon a stellar group of company confederates for what amounts to a night and weekend pickup. Logan also adds that, like Allen, To tends to be dismissed in his native land as being an idiosyncratic, critical darling. While P.T.U. was a hit, it didn’t match the international attention of Election or Triad Election.

Of course, the actors who work with To tend to dismiss such sentiments. The disc also contains interviews with Simon Yam (Sgt. Ho) and P.T.U. team member Kat (actress Maggie Shiu). To them, the film is a chance to explore all facets of character interaction - the noble and the wicked, the expected and the outsized. Yam praises the fact that there was no script when the shoot started. It allowed him to dig deeper into his persona, experimenting with tone and temperament. Shiu also enjoys working with To, especially in the action scenes. And then there is said ending. Taking a page out of the John Woo playbook, To sets the entire slow motion firefight to an amazing ambient score. As the bullets fly in frame by frame fastidiousness, we get the grandeur of such a sequence, as well as the horror of such a bloodbath.

It’s the perfect payoff for all the foundation laying P.T.U. does. This is a film as firecracker, the lost gun acting as a lit fuse to further push the plot toward its explosive end. Fans who enjoy the clichés created by the genre over the last two decades may not enjoy all the subterfuge and slow burn here. They want choreographed chaos and lots of it. Instead, Johnny To is more interested in the human toll taken by such a tightrope walk. On the one hand, criminals are running ramshackle over the Hong Kong streets, mandating new and novel police protection agencies like the P.T.U. On the other hand, the lure of easy money and professional frustration leads to lawlessness on the wrong side of the badge. For Johnny To, this dramatic dichotomy creates inherently volatile cinema. P.T.U.: Police Tactical Unit is an excellent example of this ideal. 

by Bill Gibron

21 Mar 2008


Sometimes, a filmmaker needs to be dragged out of his or her comfort zone. It’s not because what they do is so dull or derivative. Far from it. However, in the ‘what have you done for me now’ world of Hollywood, repeating oneself can be akin to career suicide. For Frank Darabont, such a situation is actually a double edged sword. An admired master at adapting Stephen King’s sometimes difficult literary works into solid big screen efforts, he’s taken three of the bestselling author’s works - The Women in the Room, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile - and turned them into solid cinematic statements.

But for a man who got his start crafting several genre scripts for the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, the Blob remake, and the Fly sequel, he’s never directed a straight horror film himself. So when it was announced that Darabont would next take on the much beloved novella, The Mist, the reaction was definitely mixed. Many felt that, once again, Darabont was treading down totally familiar territory. The fear faithful, however, were anticipating something special. Even when less than impressive casting and the director’s decision to go ‘low budget’ were announced, the geeks were prepared for macabre manna…and it was well worth the wait. The Mist is destined to go down as a modern horror classic. The DVD release (from Genius Entertainment and the Weinstein Company) furthers the film’s spell.

When a powerful Nor’easter tears through a tiny Maine town, movie poster artist and family man David Drayton discovers that a massive branch has torn through his studio, and a stubborn neighbor’s dead tree has destroyed his beautiful boathouse. After heading into town to buy supplies, he is stunned to see a local man running into the store, screaming. He claims that there is something in the oncoming mist, and as the patrons watch the fog roll over the parking lot, the screams of those stuck outside suggest that there may indeed be a presence there. Some think it’s a joke. That includes the big city lawyer Brent Norton and local yokel Jim Grondin. On the other side of the situation is bitchy Bible thumper Mrs. Carmody. She’s convinced its Judgment Day, and suggests the shoppers use a blood sacrifice - expiation - to appease a vengeful God. Between Drayton, who believes in truth, and Carmody, whose stirring up dissent, clear sides are drawn. About the only level headed individual is store clerk OIlie – that is, until the monsters actually arrive.

It needs to be repeated, just in case you missed it the first time - Frank Darabont’s The Mist is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of determined fright flick that few in the industry know how to make - or even comprehend. Everything you expect from this kind of story is here, - the otherworldly setup, the recognizable heroes and villains, the coincidental clashes, the big moment attacks, the smaller sequences of suspense. There’s even a nice amount of gore and some unexpected darkness. But Darabont is not content to simply let this opportunity go by without messing a little with the mannerisms. The Mist is so purposeful in how it thwarts genre ethos that it’s almost arrogant.

There are times when you can literally see the director ducking the likely to lunge over into the unpredictable. In the audio commentary that accompanies the two disc collector’s edition, Darabont admits that he did everything he could to avoid the carefully controlled compositions and framing of his previous films. He used two cameras simultaneously, moving fluidly throughout the grocery store set. There is no music used during the first 80 minutes, and a real lack of sonic cues when the terror is about the strike. In his script, which follows King’s story very faithfully, Darabont also lets its character’s core elements overstay their welcome. Good guys are almost too noble, baddies belligerent in their shocking psychotic cravenness.

Take Thomas Jane’s David Drayton. He’s the perfect hypocritical hero. Out of one side of his mouth comes a calming, ‘let’s work together’ sort of spiel. On the other hand, he gets his ‘followers’ together to horde food and plan an escape. Similarly, he warns others about apparent acts of altruistic sacrifice. Yet he’s typically the first to volunteer for any suicide mission. Though he’s more a b-list personality than a real blockbuster anchor, Jane is very good here. He balances both sides of his protagonist with Darabont-intended ease.

Sitting on the other end of the situational scale is outright horror Marcia Gay Harden. Her Jesus loving Mrs. Carmody is not just some Gospel spewing shrew. She’s a manipulative cow, the perfect embodiment of the Jim Jones type of cult killer that King used originally to formulate the story. There are moments where you literally want to reach up from your seat and wring her self-righteous neck. That’s either great writing, great directing, great acting, or a combination of all three.

Indeed, what happens between people is far more important and terrifying than the various chaotic creature sequences in the film. When King described them in his novella, they were a perfect mind’s eye payoff, gifts for the reader still rapidly turning pages. In the film version of The Mist, they are the inevitable catalysts, the reasons for the characters challenging – and in some cases, harming – each other. Without them, we wouldn’t have the standoff between Drayton and Andre Braugher’s Norton. There wouldn’t be the reunion between young lovers Sally and AWOL GI Wayne…or the fatal finish to their relationship. We wouldn’t have the preaching, the plotting, the gun waving anarchy, or the fear-based fisticuffs.

Thanks to Greg Nicotero and the tireless efforts of KNB F/X, the featured fiends have a wonderful computer generated junkiness. They are definitely derived from the ‘50s schlock cinema which originally inspired King. During the commentary, we learn that this was all part of Darabont’s plan. He wanted to make a throwback kind of movie, a drive-in delight for the home theater crowd. The featurettes on Disc Two discuss this concept, and there’s even a black and white version of the entire film (with an into by the director). It’s all aimed at capturing that certain post-War passion pit feel of a Burt I. Gordon or Ray Kellogg.

And then there is the ending. Much has been written about Darabont straying rather significantly from King’s original conclusion, but there’s a reason for that. During his discussion, the director points out that you can’t have an ambiguous send-off after 90 minutes of purposefully paced realism. Imagine if the characters that you’ve followed for nearly two hours simply got in a vehicle, plotted a course, and headed on down the highway. Fade out. Roll credits. There’d be much more fervor over such an anticlimactic moment than the angst being aimed at Darabont’s decision.

Logic states that a bleak and rationality based narrative demands an equally dour and grim finish. Is it painful and purposefully harsh? Yes. Does it ruin the experience overall? Only if you’re the kind of person who can’t stare the truth in its desperate and ill-prepared face. In an included Making-of, King embraces the choice. As a matter of fact, he likes it so much that he would have used it himself, had he thought of it at the time. Oddly enough, Darabont quotes lines from the novella showing where his inspiration came from. Clearly, the literary master of horror wasn’t so far from this finale after all. 

When it comes right down to it,The Mist is not a movie about semi-super human men challenging the forces of darkness like invincible immortals. This is not the kind of film where antagonists heed the pleas of those wanting compromise or the reckless reel in their hasty reactions. Darabont has used King’s creative premise as the outline for a dissection of panic – how people react to it, and how our very humanity helps to fuel it. What we are witnessing is not really a horror movie, but a mock doc depiction of how man is more menacing than some interstellar interlopers. It’s an uncomfortable lesson to learn, but as Ollie the clerk says, humans as a species are fundamentally insane. Put two of them in a room and they’ll pick sides and start dreaming up reasons to kill one another. Frank Darabont may by now be a cliché, the first filmmaking name associated with the most successful genre author ever. But there is nothing formulaic, or false here. The Mist is magnificent.

 

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